It felt like the quietest Milan furniture fair in years. Press previews were half-empty, previously impenetrable design districts were a breeze to walk through and many cocktail parties were shockingly under-patronised.
Perhaps it was the advent of a new president (Claudio Luti, the owner of successful Italian acrylic furniture company Kartell), but the one venue that felt more purposeful, business-as-usual and buzzing than any other last week was the sprawling trade fair on the outskirts of the city.
Though Chinese design was lacking there, there were several interesting Chinese design stories among the hundreds of exhibitions, showrooms and venues around town. One of the most interesting was Stellar Works, which, on its second visit to Milan, had more than doubled its collection, with new pieces by Shanghai-based Neri & Hu and Studio Space, reissues of vintage pieces by Forcolini, Mogensen, Wohlert and Andersen and an accessories collection by Japanese artisans.
A cross-cultural brand, Stellar Works is part French, part Japanese and part Chinese, with factories in France and Shanghai.
"I wanted to create a global brand based out of Shanghai," explains Stellar Works' CEO, Yuichiro Hori, who is Japanese-born but has been a Shanghai resident for 14 years.
The Chinese brands that exist are not interested in global strategies or having international reach, Hori says. Stellar Works' aim is to create high-quality furniture at accessible prices for the hospitality and residential markets, or "affordable luxury" as Hori puts it.
"We want to show the high-level craftsmanship and skills you can find in China," he says.
The young company's creative director, Danish designer Thomas Lykke, agrees that the brand taps into Shanghai's rich, international history as a thriving trading port. "But to that philosophy we also added cross-cultural sampling," he says, "which allows us to play with mixing typologies." One of their new collections - designed by Lykke's design studio OeO - is a case in point.
"The Laval collection is a French typology with a Scandinavian design language to which we added Chinese detailing," he says. "So it's something you recognise, but it's new to the eye."
Elsewhere at the fair, Hong-Kong-based British designer Michael Young was showing a new light made with leading glass and lighting manufacturer Lasvit and several pieces for new Hong Kong brand EOQ.
Paradoxically, it was the 2008 economic downturn that made the latter's existence possible.
"This company was born out of the recession," says EOQ's Hong Kong-based brand director, Matt Pepper, who was a home and lifestyle buying manager for Lane Crawford for five years. "For the first time Chinese precision-engineering electronics factories had gaps in production schedules and were looking for interesting things to do."
EOQ's first collection is made almost entirely out of extruded, stamped and folded aluminium.
"China's still got the money and excitement to do this sort of thing," says Pepper. (The products are manufactured in Shenzhen.) The Joseph light, for instance, has a refined Asian silhouette but was originally a block of aluminium that was extruded into shape, softened with computer-numerical-control cutting and milled on a lathe to open up the core. It would be impossible to develop this sort of product in Europe, says Pepper.
Young's Superclover light for Lasvit, a cluster of white conical glass shapes held together on a geometric steel frame, has a similar inventiveness and thirst for innovation.
The British-Hong Kong connection is also strong at Channels, a UK brand owned and run by lead designer Samuel Chan. Hong Kong-born but British-educated, Chan has owned a factory in Shenzhen since 2000 and turns out some of the best timber furniture for its own brand and uber-brands Moooi and Ercol.
"I'm a timber person and I like to find out what timber can do," says Chan. For instance, the brand's console table is made out of the thinnest timber possible, while its Finnieston wall, table and floor lamps feature a solid-wood, hand-turned shade, something previously unthinkable without cool LED technology, which reduces the fire risk inherent in the original process.
Tokyo-based practice Nendo was ubiquitous as ever, with perhaps its most appealing partnership the infectious collaboration between Oki Sato (Nendo's founder and chief designer) and Venetian designer Luca Nichetto. The design process was modelled on the Japanese tradition of collaborative poetry known as tanka (short poem). One person writes the first three lines of a poem and sends them to another person for the last two lines to be completed.
The result is Nichetto=Nendo, a small but perfectly formed collection of objects for the home. Many of them - including the playful lamp, made with a washi paper shade and thin legs (based on a popsicle with its flat wooden stick), and the ingenious cork stool with a suitcase-like extendable handle that the pair say was inspired by a pot with a lid - will go into production this year.
"It just happened step by step," says Sato. "Nothing was scheduled, nothing was planned." Luca Nichetto chimes in: "This is a project entirely without a plan." And they both burst out laughing, clearly relishing the experience of working on an entirely designer-led project.